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PhotoSynthesis: Thoughts on Photography and Related Media
Benson,The Ultraviolet Sun, TRACE, July 30, 1999, 2010

High among the great achievements of the photographic medium has been the development and elaboration of scientific photography. To my mind some of the most spectacular imagery ever created has been done in the genre. Whereas the bulk of what we think of as photography is concerned with humanity and its environment, and– to a lesser extent –the natural world or what’s left of it, scientific photography has brought us outside ourselves to reveal entirely other worlds. These worlds lie beyond the capacities of our perception, beyond the capabilities of the human eye and its earthbound limitations. These worlds astound.

Among the unsung geniuses of scientific photography are robotic cameras, bringing to the fore the entire question of the necessity of the photographer to photographic vision. The utterly gorgeous pictures transmitted by satellite and telescopic cameras can hardly fail to impress. Moreover they impress both by their stunning beauty and their equally stunning revelations. Walter Benjamin’s enormously influential essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, can perhaps now be amended to read: Art in the Age of Mechanical Production. For looking at these superb NASA photos one wonders why the artist and his ego are necessary at all?

Lack of ego is not the slightest bit in evidence at Michael Benson’s new show at Hasted Kraeutler. He has, admittedly, mounted a stunning array of scientific, or quasi-scientific images in Beyond, but nowhere could I see an acknowledgement of their sources. In fact it was only after a bit of searching on the net that I found a real explanation of the process by which they arrived on the walls of a Chelsea gallery.

Apparently Mr. Benson spent a great deal of time sifting through images in various scientific archives, particularly NASA’s Planetary Image Resource Facility and Stanford’s, TRACE Project, choosing among them to create composites which he then printed in color with the aid of master printer, Paul Geissler. As such Mr. Benson functioned largely as a picture editor, using Photoshop to merge elements from individual files. All of this is perfectly fine. Appropriation is a standard modernist device. But since he shares equal creative credit with the scientific projects that produced them and the master craftsman who printed them, it seems mean-spirited not to acknowledge this openly anywhere in the show.

So despite the obvious handsomeness of the images in Beyond, the exhibition has raised important questions regarding ownership and integrity, and I left Hasted Kraeutler disturbed by both the gallery’s and the artist’s seeming disinterest in answering them.

 by unidentified photographer.
Balkan Smoke and Saharan Dust, the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

But Michael Benson notwithstanding, there remains the question of the necessity of the artist. Marcel Duchamp had but to name a thing and it was art, claim a thing and it was his art. The Ego uber alles.

Can we now reverse the equation? Can the photographic children of the machine, remotely taken and at random intervals, claim the status of Art? Can the machine, therefore, like Marcel Duchamp, bestow value by virtue of its very being? And if Art is independent of the artist, what’s left to us of that rapidly shrinking preserve of the exclusively human?

Or is the category of Art superfluous in the end? Do we simply have great photographs and not-so-great photographs, however made, their value intrinsic to the product not the producer? Is the answer to the dilemma Walter Benjamin posed in the age of mechanical reproduction an entirely new category of creation?

And once set in motion do the internal processes of the machine have specific creative trajectories that we remain outside of and are separate from, and can, in the end, only admire or condemn?

Just as we cannot take credit for the beauty of the heavens and the earth, for they have been authored by impersonal forces far beyond us, do the products of the machine have a self-sufficiency all their own?

PhotoSynthesis: Thoughts on Photography and Related Media by Barbara Confino

Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at www.thegeneticwars.com. Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery